Sunday, April 3, 2011

What kind of education do I want for MY kids?

As our family's first experience having a two-week Spring Break comes to a close, I look back and fondly recall an extended opportunity to spend time together, catch up, and talk about and do the things we enjoy.  Too often, during the busy times of the school year, we do not get to engage in these activities or have these conversations.  That is something I need to change and make time for with my family.  In fact, doing and talking about what we enjoy, what we are good at and what gets us excited are very valuable for adults and children in helping identify strengths and encourage exploration.  Breaks from the routines of life can allow us to explore these areas of interest, but should not be the only times we endeavour to pursue them. The routine of school should be based on opportunities for children to explore their passions and pursue areas of strength.  One of the deepest conversations we engaged in during the break was regarding school.  I recall sitting with my wife and children, asking, "Do you miss school?" and, "What do you miss about school?", "What do you wish you did more of at school?", and, most importantly, "Do you like school?"

The questions open a very broad topic, and the answers were largely positive. While I did hear comments about being bored on occasion and preferring Spring Break when they were free to do as they pleased, I think that both of my children (like most kids) enjoy being in school, learning new skills and getting to interact regularly with their peers.   I have two great kids, a 10 year old boy in Grade 5 and an 8 year old boy in Grade 3.  Both are in French Immersion programs in Richmond, are quiet, compliant, studious kids, who do well in school.  I think they are the type of students that most teachers enjoy having in class because they do as they are told, have very little in the way of behaviour issues, and try to please adults.  I am confident that with the personalities they have, they will be reasonably successful throughout their time in school, because they fit the profile of students who are easily instructed.
My having confidence that they will be successful students, however, does not entirely ease my mind when I think about their life beyond school.  Like most parents, I want for my children to become happy, confident, well-adjusted adults who are considered to be good people.  What they choose to do with their lives professionally is up to them, and I truly believe that if they enjoy what they do and do it well, they will be successful.  Below is a video of John Wooden describing his definition of success.  It takes a caring person to be able to define success this way, and to inspire others to meet that definition.  How do schools reinforce what John Wooden describes as success?

We are faced with many other questions in education, and one of the most often asked is "Why do you do what you do?"  A good question and a blog post by Tom Hierck (here).  I know the answer for me.  Similar to Tom, I do what I do because I care, and because I have the responsibility of trying to make a positive difference for students.  But when I think about how I am most concerned about my children's happiness, confidence and moral character, it makes me ask a more specific question: "Exactly what do I want my children's school experience help them to develop?"

Similar types of questions have swirled around in my head before.  I have written a Statement of Educational Philosophy a few times in my career, (the first couple of times before I had children of my own) and while it has evolved over the years, the question of what is most important has always been at the core.  But when put into the context of my own children, it has, for me, become more personal (although I am not sure it should).  The answer can go in several different directions, and I struggle to keep it brief, but below are the things I want school to help develop in my kids:

1.  Confidence-Tom Schimmer wrote on his blog that "It's all about Confidence",
"If our students are convinced they can be successful – if they have the self-efficacy – they are likely to try harder and persist longer when they face obstacles. Confident students believe they can eventually learn anything...
The opposite of confidence, of course, is anxiety.  As most of us know, anxiety interferes with memory, attention, and concentration.  Anxious students prefer to have information fed to them as they have a general sense of incompetence...
Confidence transcends any skill and any century. Teaching is, and always will be, about building confidence…confidence is about expecting a positive result…expecting a positive result drives the desire to learn.
I could not agree more.  I want my kids to be confident in themselves and in their ability to learn and perform things.  I have seen how anxiety inhibits their learning, ability to think and recall and their desire to persevere.  I have also experienced in my own development how positive feedback develops confidence which leads to increased interest, engagement and hard work.  The most important element I hope my kids get from their time in school is that sense of confidence in their ability as learners.

2.  Thinking Creatively/Asking Questions/Looking for Answers-the world in our future is largely to be discovered.  In education we spend significant amounts of time talking about 21st Century Skills and Learning.  Included are things like: collaboration, engagement, critical thinking, using technology, and many more (see blog post by Jeff Delp here).  Simply put, to do things the way they have always been done will not be sufficient for our children.  We need to be able to teach different skills in different ways than in the past, and students will need to be able to think and problem solve differently in the future.  I worry about this most specifically with my children.  As people-pleasers, they are reluctant to question, and are very concerned with doing things right.  Much like me, they are not yet as creative as they will need to be, and are most comfortable working on something where they know what they should produce.  I need my children (and all children) to be able to ask questions, not fear making mistakes, and try new ways of doing things.  Schools need to concentrate on developing these skills.

3.  The ability to work with others and develop relationships-it is my opinion that the most important elements of school in today's world are social interaction and peer relationships.  It is the thing that students enjoy most in school, and is the reason why schools exist in the form they do.  It is possible for students to do all of their learning (correction: Credentialing) through the computer in on-line environments.  The world, however, will desire collaborative working/learning in the workplace, and students need to develop these skills in school.  They also need to learn to appreciate differences of opinion and culture.  This is part of the obligation of schools; working in unison with the home to develop strong moral character in their students.  I want my children to learn to relate and work well with others, yet still be able to share their ideas with conviction and pride.

4.  To have their passions uncovered and celebrated-teachers need to find out what their students are good at and enjoy, and weave those things into the curriculum, thus enabling studnets to be more engaged in their learning.  It takes time for teachers to uncover/recognize/celebrate these skills, but in all likelihood, they are the things students will be using in their lives after school.  Too often, students have their shortcomings pointed out and all efforts are concentrated on improving the areas of weakness.  This practice only serves to frustrate and alienate the very students who need our assistance most.  Schools need to spend more time uncovering strengths and passions, then helping students develop them.  Being challenged in areas of strength can produce stunning achievements and a sense of pride and accomplishment for students that they will strive to replicate in their lives after school. 

In short, I want my kids to get from school the ability to be creative thinkers, passionate about their interests, aware of how to respectfully engage with others, and confident in their abilities to persevere, explore and look for alternate solutions.  I think they are among the things that most parents want their children to learn at school.  

Last night I watched the guilty pleasure, "School of Rock".  While Dewey Finn (aka Ned Schneebly) did not behave as a professional role model, his enthusiasm, care for his students and the way he helped them find their passions (I know, it was a movie...but his project-based learning method is all the rage!), is something for us to emulate.  We owe it to all of our students to make schools places where they love coming, get engaged in life-long learning with and from each other, are celebrated for their unique sets of skills and have their confidence developed.  These are all things that Jack Black's character did for the students in his class.  I hope that my children (in fact, all the children in any school) get the opportunity to uncover their passions, work creatively with their peers and develop confidence.  What do you want school to help your kids develop?

In my next post, I will explore the question, "How do we ensure we are promoting these things in school?"

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